The Visual Diary of Summer in Puglia, SAVEUR Blog Awards Nomination & A Salad with Watermelon, Tomatoes and Local Herbs

Lab Noon in Puglia | Watermelon, Tomato & Herb salad | Saghar Setareh_-11

I. The Heat and The Gratitude 

The distance between the desire to lay on a white beach on a hot summer day with a cool beer in hand, and the first hot drink during a rainy day that already smells like Autumn, might feel like a blink at times. In Italy though, that blink can last for several months. Several, hot, exhausting months of merciless summer. I guess at the age of 32 and long after school holidays I should be mature enough to confess that no, summer is not my favorite moment of the year, thank you very much! 

In fact, I believe had it not been for berries, stone fruits, melons, figs and fresh sea food, I would not even enjoy summer. And I am sure, that if it wasn’t for frisa (Pugliese hard bread to be soaked and seasoned before serving with fresh cherry tomatoes) I would probably starve in hot, humid days that cooking, along with any other activity seems plainly impossible. 

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Please accept this rant about the unacceptably hot summer as a justification for my absence here. Complaints and nags aside though, I have been quite busy. Determined to swim against the tide during August, when all Italy literally shuts down to go on vacation (read “to the beach”), I decided to stay in Rome and work. And work I did! But before August, the month of limbo and transition in Italy, I headed south towards my beloved Puglia, for a brief vacation.

In this post, I try to write only a few words to set the mood and leave everything else to the images, as a visual diary. As you can see there are tons of them, and it took the great part of summer for me to select and edit them (I listened to the whole series of Harry Potter audiobooks in the meanwhile! An utter delight!).

I also add the simplest, most refreshing non-recipe for a summer salad with watermelon chunks, a variety of tomatoes and tons of aromatic herbs.

Of course, the post can’t be completed without thanking you immensely for having nominated me for the prestigious SAVEUR blog awards for Best Photography! The news came as the most pleasant surprise just when I was about to leave Puglia for Rome. I am still speechless and drenched in bliss for this. There’s still a little time to vote, so please keep supporting me! (Update: Voting time is over! Thanks for the support.)

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II. The Pugliese Diary

I stayed in the same country side home that I have been visiting for the past two years; old, authentic and rustic. Built in a dry yet fertile land where ancient olive trees have deep routs in the red earth, grey and white Trulli host guests and a small garden provides the necessary vegetables to feed us all summer long. The eggplants, zucchinis and green peppers are satuèed in local extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes end up in jars of “sala” (tomato sauce) to dress pasta dishes all year long, and even grapes are conserved in alcohol with anice seeds to served as post-dessert after a long meal. 

Meals were often simple and fresh. Local cheese (read tons of burrata and a lot of mozzarella nodini) from nearby masserias (Pugliese farm houses), taralli and olives. Of course, frisa were in the order of the day, and we ordered fresh orecchiette and panzarelli (fried dough filled with tomato and mozzarella) from another nearby masseria. 

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Speaking of these typical Pugliese farm houses, I went for a visit of the dreamy Masseria Potenti too! Masseria Potenti, a remodeled fortified-farmhouse-turned-into-hotel, is our venue for The Puglia Encounter Workshop that I will host at the end of October together with Emiko Davis and Alice Adams. I can’t wait to be back there, to chill by the pool, to wander around with my camera and to go treasure hunting in Grottaglie, the land of magical Pugliese artisan ceramics.  Continue reading

Persian Cold Soup with Cucumber & Herbs from Puglia, in Southern Italy

Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-8NOTE: The floral bowls and platter in this post are the courtesy of Dishesonly; a website where you can purchase various types of designer and craft dish-ware. Check them out! There have many pretty plates!

Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-13-2
Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-19-2

Fiammetta is the type of woman I’d like to become “when I get old”; brilliant, independent, strong and unstoppable. She just turned 73, she can tell you a hundred stories about her travels around the globe since she was young, the stories of South of Italy, where her both parents were from. One from Apulia and the other from Naples. The stories of when she worked as the manager of classical musicians and arranged concerts in Italy for the Russian artists when the Soviet Union didn’t let anybody out. She speaks many languages and her recent infatuation with Iran has brought us together. Fiammetta has travelled to Iran in November 2014 and she’s been in love with my country ever since. So much so that she’s now learning Persian. My mother tongue made our paths meet; and the passion for food and culture bonded us in a not-so-ordinary friendship.  I had a pleasure to stay in her country house in the provence of Apulia in Southern Italy for the first 10 days of August. Emerged in the beautiful and unique nature of Puglia (the Italian word for Apulia), and surrounded by so much culture and history, Fiammetta and I talked a lot; I talked about Iran and she talked to me about Puglia, Naples and the stories from her parents and her childhood. We went out a lot; around the country side and the nearby small towns, and to the beach, where the Pugliese sea was Esmeralda clear blue and put the the Caribbean seas to shame. But most importantly we cooked. We talked about countless recipes, both Italian and Persian, and we were often surprised by the similarity of some of these dishes, especially the southern ones to the Iranian ones.

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Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-5

Thankfully, Fiammetta and I shared the same same taste regarding Summer food; simple, seasonal, quick and mostly vegetarian. There was an abundant harvest of tomatoes, eggplants and thin, long peppers. Plus a certain kind of cucumber that I have seen only in southern in Italy and has different names in different dialects. It’s round and green, smaller than a melon, and it tastes like both cucumber and melon! It’s one of my favorite summer vegetables that sadly I can’t find in Rome.  The tiny vegetable garden provided us with much more than we needed, therefore a lot of time was required to preserve all the veggies and prevent them from rotting. We spent two days making “conserva”, the tomato sauce the Neapolitan way. (Here you can find a classic Italian tomato sauce recipe.) Caught by the weariness and after squeezing and canning many kilos of tomatoes, Fiammetta said “L’orto fa l’uomo morto”, a saying which means the vegetable garden kills a man (for the amount of work that there is).

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The rest of the big garden around “Casina Luciana” (the house is named after Fiammetta’s late mother) is filled with many, many spectacular olive trees. There are four or five figs trees too, from which each day I picked up fresh figs. Each sweet bite on the ripe figs right under tree was an immense joy.

It’s amazing how the Apulia soil, which looks avid and dry at the first sight, can provide so much great produce. Some of the best grapes and vineyards of Italy are in Puglia which make Primitivo wine, with a dry and strong flavor. Everywhere you look, the red soil shines with the silver leaves of olive trees. The Apulian extra virgin olive oil is just as good as its wine, if not even better. The fantastic Mediterranean climate in Puglia, like Calabria and Sicily, allows almond and pistachio trees to grow and fruit beautifully. Almonds are among Puglia’s best and most characteristic produce. Their almond granita tastes divine and almond milk served on espresso ice cube is a traditional post-meal drink, both much appreciated in hot summer days.

Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-8
Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-24

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Speaking of hot Summer days, specially when we came back from the beach, we ate various ready-made food based on vegetables. After days of Italian/Pugliese meals, one evening that we had Fiammetta’s cousin over for dinner, I took over the kitchen and cooked Persian, only with seasonal and local ingredients, without really giving the authentic Persian recipe a make over.

Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-2
Memoirs of Puglia | Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-9
Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-4
Ab Doogh Khiar | Persian Cold Soup with Yoghurt and Herbs | Zuppa Fredda di Yoghurt alla Persiana | Lab Noon-5

One of the dishes was a classic Persian cold soup call “Ab-doogh-khiar”, literally translating to water-(sour)yogurt-cucumber. Other than cucumber, the soup is filled with a LOT of aromatic herbs which help the soup thicken. In the classic version black (purple) basil, mint and tarragon are used. But you can change that based on what you have on hand. Such as thyme, origano, marjoram, as long as you use mint as the base, even dry mint works. Mint, cucumber and yoghurt match so well and it’s the key element in the freshness of the dish. Continue reading

A Guide to Winter Salads & Spinach, Marinated Beets and Chickpea Salad

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (8 of 8)Doesn’t January feel link kind of a limbo? When all of the holidays end, I am usually left with contrasting emotions; On one side I am just fed up with everything about holidays, from the food to the laziness of the vacations. I feel bloated and full, no matter how much I tried to remain sane in my eating. On the other hand I feel nostalgic and kinda sad that the holidays are gone. 

The first thing however that gets me quickly back on the track is switching to a healthy and light diet. The next couple of months are going to be super busy and I should absolutely not waste time. There are many projects I’m involved with (the most important one: my master’s thesis! Yes, I’m still studying but I swear I’ll quit after this one!) and some are directly or indirectly connected to this blog. All of them in one way or another are about food. The thesis in particular is all about Lab Noon, but we’ll get to that later. Truth be told, there’s a lot of new stuff to try and experiment and I’m filled with that excitement of creating something new and being scared shitless of not being able to meet deadlines and other insecurities. My first step; I (desperately) need to get organized.

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (2 of 8)I started getting organized first in my eating habits. Started with some detox smoothies and went back to one sure type of dish I know I make very well, tasty, filling and nutritious; Salads. There’s no secret about it, I combine everything. Keeping in mind to insert enough proteins, carbs and fiber and to keep the dressing balanced with acidity and fat. My secret ingredients for more energy and substance are nuts and seeds. About 90% of times my salads are vegetarian but sometimes I might add some smoked salmon, tuna or chicken breast too. The problem with salads however is that they’re, er…, cold! Specially on chilly winter days. I suffer a lot from the cold. I often have chilled fingers and toes no matter how many layers of clothes I’m wearing and how boiling the heater is. So sometimes it becomes quite a task to get the veggies from the cold fridge and cut them, let alone eating them cold. That’s when, er, –this might sound a little crazy– I cook my salads! And not only typical warm salads with lentils or other legumes. Sometimes I even cook the poor lettuce, for just a minute or two. 

Basic Tips  for a Delicious & Nutritious Salad

Stick to seasonal produce. Do you really want a tasty salad in the middle of winter? Don’t put tomatoes in it!  Don’t use fresh tomatoes in any dish in the winter. Think different types of cabbage, spinach and baby spinach, all types of chicories, Brussels sprout, kale, cauliflower, beets and fennels. You can/should cook slightly most of these veggies but not necessarily. Just remember to take off the stalk off the kale leaves and shred the leaves thinly. Try boiled/roasted potatoes with broccoli, peas, sun-dried tomatoes, beans and onion.

Got nuts. Different types of nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecan, pine nuts etc not only add a good sum of energy, vitamins and minerals that are necessary for you health (specially if you consume little or no animal protein), but they also bring a wonderful, crunchy texture to your salad. They’re best if you toast them for a minute or two so that they can bring out their fragrance and essential oils. Don’t forget about seeds either, pumpkin seeds, linseeds, sesame, poppy seeds, you name it. Try radicchio, blue cheese, celery, walnuts and lentils with balsamic vinegar. 

Fruit is your friend. I absolutely love the acidic, sweet flavor of a fruit in a savory dish, specially a fresh salad. It brings out the flavor of salty or bitter ingredients. They match beautifully with cheese or bitter winter roots such as radishes. Go beyond ordinary, think of pears and blue cheese, orange and black olives, mandarine, persimmon with salmon, apples with radishes, pomegranate with kale. The combinations are infinite. Try arugula salad, roasted turnips, chopped chestnuts and pieces of Japanese persimmon with shavings of parmesan cheese. 

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (3 of 8)
Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (1 of 8)

Satisfy your sweet tooth. As I said, I love the sweetness in a savory dish. Even sweeter than fruit are the dried fruit. The one I love? raisins! As the classic coleslaw, raisins are beautiful in almost in kinda of salad, maybe except for the ones containing fish. Dried apricots are also great for a sweet touch in a salad. I use dry mulled berries and dry pine apple too. Try, shredded red cabbage, oranges, raisins, almonds and hard cheese dressed only with olive oil. 

Break Bread. Oh the good company that bread is to a salad! You can make croutons, you can break flat bread upon a salad to give it crunchy texture or you can simply eat your salad with slices of a good (whole grain and dark?) bread, even using it like a cutlery to help your fork. It’s something I’ve learned in Italy, when you have good extra virgin olive oil in your salad, you must it with bread. Try cutting your old bread, splash a little bit of water on it, then cook it in an oiled pan with garlic powder and sea salt and add to your salad.

Dress it up. Most salads are uneatable without their dressings. Use good cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. Do not exaggerate with your acid. Remember this Jamie Oliver’s rule of thumb of 3 parts fat, 1 part acid. Try different vinegars ( balsamic, red wine, white wine, sherry, apple cider etc), lemon juice and the juice of other citrus fruits. If you already have an acidic element in your salad such as fruit, skip the acidic part in the dressing. One of my personal favorite dressings specially when there’s cheese in the salad is the balsamic cream which comes in different flavors and turns almost any dish to a luxurious marvel. From cheese to meat, from strawberries to even ice cream. A Dijon mustard also makes a lot of difference. I am not a fan of mayonnaise though. I prefer using plain white yoghurt, lemon juice and seasonings for a similar effect. It’s great with potatoes salads and other ones with meaty proteins. 

Warm Winter Salad | Insalata Invernale Tiepida | by Lab Noon (1 of 1)

Some winter salads from around the internet that have inspired me:

– This colorful crunchy salad with red cabbage and apples with a special dressing by Noghl-e Mey‘s Mahroo, my good friend. 
– This intriguing vegan Cesar salad with roasted chickpeas and almonds by Edible Perspective
– This so-my-type-of-dish Autumn salad with figs, prosciutto and blue cheese by From the Kitchen
– This shiny and bright Fennel-Roasted Carrot + Shallot Salad with Shaved Apples by Dolly and Oatmeal.
– And last but not least, the long list of beautiful winter salads on Food52 among which I have particularly enjoyed this Roasted Grape and Butternut Squash Salad with Kale and Parmesan.


My Warm Winter Salad or It is too dry to be a soup! 

My warm winter salad at a certain point could happily become a soup. After all, I make a classic sauté with onions, carrot and celery for the chick peas. (I used canned ones, but you could totally cook your soaked-over-night dry chickpeas together with this sauté.) I even added a little bit of white wine for extra tanginess. I like that bold rich flavors in salad. I am so lucky I had received hand-picked dried mushrooms from Finland that once soaked in hot water for half an hour, bring an earthy flavor to any dish, be it a salad or a soup. And when the chickpeas are flavored I place the spinach on top, covering with the lid and letting it soften by the steam. Maybe the only proper salad ingredient is the lemon juice marinated beets. But I like it that way. I need to get organized in many fronts of my life, but I’d like to stay messy in my recipes. Recipes where you’re free to experiment, to add or to omit and to make tasty food that’s good for you, without having to fit it in a name, a category or a nationality.  Continue reading