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

Virtual Midsummer Potluck for Peace: a Persian Cucumber & “Sekanjebin” Summer Drink

Virtual Midsummer Potlock for Peace | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-21

I. Taking a Stand at an Anniversary

Since I started this blog exactly three years ago, I have lived in four different houses. Early after publishing the first post, I left the apartment I shared with great roommates to move in with my ex-boyfriend. A year and half later, I moved out to another apartment with not-so-great roommates. Then finally a month ago, I moved, again, to a tiny apartment right under the Colosseum. The latter, is one of the most exciting and demanding events of my adult life. 

Home, has a always been a big theme in this blog, as I said right in the beginning (gosh, that ‘about’ page needs to be updated!). It’s an argument that occupies my mind whenever I think I’m finally settling down, and whenever I feel lost. Artists, writers and thinkers have dedicated years to work on the subject of home, and movement. I prefer to refer to them, rather than poorly attempting to elaborate this vast subject. But, again, home, it returns, and it is in a way the core of Lab Noon. 

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Lab Noon, was born as a laboratory of (metaphoric) fermentation and baking, as noon means bread in Persian, other than midday. I wanted this virtual space to be my home, no matter where I physically was. I didn’t start this blog as a pure hobby. My intentions were professional right from the beginning, although I didn’t exactly what direction my career as a visual creative and food enthusiast would take. 

Three years later, I work as a professional food photographer, and content creator for social media, and I’m aspiring to more food writing. BUT! I can’t begin to emphasize how important it is for me to keep this blog and my social media, true to myself, and my own values. As late Zygmunt Bauman said years ago, our modern societies are liquid, our reality is fluid. We are living in weird, dark times, and the most dangerous way to behave is to be indifferent. Therefore I am making a plea to all those who have a platform and an audience (which in the era of social media basically means everybody), to take a stand and make their voice heard, while respecting their niche. 

Honestly, I sometimes find it very hard to talk about food and food alone when horrid attacks and bombs and killing is on the order of the day. We can’t increase the violence by discussing the violence and sharing its images. What can do, is however to open up for dialogue; prepare a platform to talk, and to listen, especially to those who are often not heard. We can encourage the conversation. If you think this idea is bizzarre for a food blog, read this note on Food52 that was published the day after the US elections in last November. 

II: A Picnic Blog Party: Virtual Midsummer Potluck for Peace

On that note, I invited dozens of fellow blogger to participate in a virtual gathering and each bring something to eat or drink as IRL. Spread a cloth, set the scene, distribuite the food, eat, drink, be marry and… start a dialogue. Twenty something bloggers have joined me for the virtual midsummer potluck for peace. Some were very eager to participate but couldn’t make it in the end. Many others gave support.

There are recipes of all kind, and different origins. Salads, grills, pies, quiches, bites, desserts and drinks, there’s a glorious amount of summer recipes perfect for picnics or al fresco dining. Check out the guest recipes in the list bellow. I couldn’t have celebrated Lab Noon’s birthday in any better way, so once again, thank you everyone for coming to this virtual gathering!

My recipe is a classic Perisan drink with cucumbers and mint that you can find after the list of bloggers and recipes.
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Guests’ recipes for the Virtual Midsummer Potluck for Peace

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!

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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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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.

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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.

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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