Cindy Swain comes from a close-knit, wheat-farming community, where the typical fare is hearty and home-cooked.
Restaurants at this crossroads 36 miles west of Spokane carry names like Cowboy Café and Edna’s Drive-In, or – for international cusine – El Ranchito.
There is no Italian restaurant. And there wasn’t one when Swain was growing up in Davenport, either.
Somehow, that seems to make her appearance this week on national television in Italy, where she now lives, all the more exciting.
Swain, an Italophile and food blogger, is competing on “La Prova del Cuoco,” billed as Italy’s most popular cooking show.
On air since 2000 and hosted by cookbook author and television personality Antonella Clerici, the show airs Monday through Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m. on RAI 1, Italy’s national public broadcasting channel. Swain’s segments are being shot live in Rome Monday through Friday this week.
She’s taking part in the show’s regular cooking competition – “La Gara Culinaria” – in which teams – Red Tomato and Green Pepper – are made up of two people: one professional chef and one “normal person.”
Swain, 31, is the normal person.
She will be paired with a different, renowned Italian chef each of the five days she appears on the show.
Swain runs Italicana Kitchen, a food blog in English and Italian, sharing recipes and cooking tips – many of which she’s learned from her Italian mother-in-law, Patrizia Francesconi.
Swain’s obsession with Italy started when she did a report for school on the boot-shaped country when she was 13 or 14 years old.
“I fell in love with the culture, food, geography – and I made it my goal to go to a university with an Italian language department and study abroad program,” said Swain, who lived in Rome for three months as a sophomore in college.
After graduating from the University of Washington in 2005 with a double major in communications and Italian studies, she worked as a project manager at a Seattle advertising agency, where she “had a great salary and a budding career path.”
She quit in 2008 to pursue other goals, among them: traveling and writing a book. She left that February, three days after her 25th birthday.
On her itinerary: New Zealand, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Turkey, Croatia, Switzerland, England and Italy.
At the end of her 10-month trip, in 2009, she stayed in Emilia Romagna, a region in northern Italy. She lives in Correggio, a small town near Bologna, known for lasagna and meat sauce; Modena, known for balsamic vinegars; and Parma, known for prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano.
She met her Italian husband, Michele Lorenzini, at a video rental store. She asked “this cute guy” at one of the automatic rental machines for help and by the end of their conversation – “We talked and laughed for a half hour” – they had set a coffee date for the next day.
Four years later, she’s working on her first book, which she hopes to have finished by Jan. 1. The next step is to find a publisher.
“I’ve started and stopped throughout these years, but this has actually served me well because my experience in Italy has shaped and enriched parts of my book,” Swain said.
She returns to Davenport every year or so. Her parents, Lee and Deborah Swain, still live there. Swain communicates with them almost every day.
“My parents are fantastic,” Swain said. “They’ve always encouraged my two older brothers and I to work hard and follow our dreams.”
These days, her dreams include creating an e-cookbook and offering video recipes as well as downloadable weekly menu plans and shopping lists.
Meantime, she’s ready for her close-up.
Q&A with Cindy Swain
SR: What are the top five things you love about living in Italy?
CS: Food (obviously), great wine, learning the language, traveling around Italy and snowboarding in the Alps.
SR: What are some of the first dishes – and tricks and tips – your mother-in-law taught you?
CS: My mother-in-law taught me how to make homemade bread. I was always intimated by bread recipes but now realize how easy they are to make.
Here are her tips:
• Use warm water to dissolve the yeast (around 105 degrees).
• When dissolving the yeast in the warm water, add 1/2 teaspoon sugar to accelerate the leavening time.
• When you allow the bread to rise, keep it in a warm spot and away from drafts. In summer, you can find many warm places. But in winter simply heat your oven to 125 degrees, then shut it off and let the bread rise inside (see step-by-step instructions at italicanakitchen.com.
SR: Who or what are your main culinary inspirations and influences, besides your mother-in-law?
CS: The fruit and vegetable vendors and fish monger at the outdoor market. When I see interesting new produce or fish, I always ask about recipes and usually Italian women who are in line also chime in. Then I adapt their recipes with ideas I have.
Fellow bloggers and food photo sites like foodgawker.com and tastespotting.com or Pinterest are also great sources of inspiration. “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg is also fun to experiment with as it lists whole ingredients and what their flavors pair best with.
SR: What are your favorite regional Italian dishes from Emilia Romagna?
• Pumpkin Tortelli, or Tortelli di Zucca. Tortelli and Ravioli are used interchangeably, but where I live, they are called tortelli
• Vegetable Lasagne. The traditional is with Bolognese meat sauce, but I prefer it with vegetables.
• Tigelle. These are small bread discs that you cut open and fill with prosciutto and other meats, cheese, vegetables, spreads or even Nutella.
• Piadine. This large flat bread is basically Italy’s version of the quesadilla. You can fill with meat, cheese and veggies.
SR: What are your hopes for your blog and cooking?
CS: My hope is that my short-terms goals will lead to larger projects, like a printed cookbook you can find in stores and a cooking show on Italian or American TV. I would like to also get involved with building food tourism here in Italy. Italian gastronomy is simply remarkable. You can drive 20 miles and ingredients, recipes and names of food change. There is a lot to explore and discover.
SR: What have you learned from the experience?
CS: That you can achieve great things when you take action.
From Cindy Swain
This recipe can be found online at italicanakitchen.com.
This is a great make-ahead dish that freezes well. But be sure to use a ripe avocado.
1/4 cup couscous
1/2 ripe avocado
1/2 cup canned cannellini beans (or other white bean), drained
1/4 cup finely ground bread crumbs
1/3 cup loosely packed basil, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
1/2 hot pepper (green or red), finely chopped
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for skillet
Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Greek yogurt, as needed (optional)
In a small bowl, combine the couscous with 1/4 cup hot (but not boiling) water. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mash the avocado and cannellini beans together then toss in the bread crumbs, basil, chives, hot pepper, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, sea salt and black pepper. Stir in the couscous and form 6 patties with your hands.
Drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a skillet. Set the patties on top and cook over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes on each side or until the outer layer has a nice golden hue.
Top with a dollop of Greek yogurt and sprinkle chopped chives. Serve alone or with salad greens that have been tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Yield: 6 cakes
Light(er) and Eggless Tiramisu Parfaits
From Cindy Swain
Find the recipe at italicanakitchen.com.
This take on classic Italian tiramisu features fewer calories than the traditional version.
For the dark chocolate covered coffee beans (optional)
1 ounce dark chocolate
1/4 cup dark roasted coffee beans
For the tiramisu
1 cup prepared coffee (drip, instant or espresso)
12 lady fingers
4 tablespoons Bailey’s Creme Caramel, divided
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup shaved sea salt dark chocolate (or regular dark chocolate)
Unsweetened cacao powder, as needed
Make the dark chocolate covered coffee beans: Use a double boiler or find a small and a medium-size pot. Fill the medium-size pot with water and bring to a simmer. Add the dark chocolate to the smaller pot and set it over the medium-size pot, stirring the chocolate with a spatula as it melts. (You could also microwave the chocolate.)
Remove from heat, add the coffee beans and stir until completely coated. Spread out coffee beans on wax paper and set aside until dried.
Make the tiramisù: Prepare 1 cup of coffee and set aside.
With an electric hand mixer, beat the heavy whipping cream until stiff peaks form. In a separate large bowl, combine mascarpone, ricotta, sugar and 2 tablespoons Bailey’s Creme Caramel. Fold the whipped cream mixture into the mascarpone mixture.
Add 2 tablespoons Bailey’s Creme Caramel to the cooled espresso.
Arrange your working station so you have 6 glass cups. Break the lady finger cookies in half, dip the two pieces in the espresso and gently line the bottom of one glass. Repeat for the other five glasses. Add a layer of the mascarpone cheese mixture to each glass and even it out. Sprinkle a layer of cacao on top followed by a layer of shaved salted dark chocolate.
Repeat with the lady fingers dipped in coffee. Divide the rest of the whipped mixture among the glasses, followed by a layer of cacao, shaved chocolate and top it off with chocolate covered coffee beans, if desired.
Cover each glass with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Remove from the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Strawberry and Blueberry Pancake Cake
From Cindy Swain
Recipe can be found at italicanakitchen.com.
Perfect for brunch, this dramatic-looking strawberry and blueberry “cake” features layered pancakes. Substitute other fruits or berries when strawberries or blueberries aren’t in season.
For the blueberry sauce
2 cups frozen blueberries
3 tablespoons sugar-free blueberry jam
For the homemade buttermilk
3 cups skim milk
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 1/2 of a large lemon)
For the pancake mix
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon extra virgin coconut oil, melted (or vegetable or extra virgin olive oil)
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Butter, for the skillet
For the maple syrup whipped cream
2 cups fresh heavy cream
1 tablespoon all natural maple syrup
For the topping
1 pint strawberries, sliced
1/4 cup fresh blueberries
Make the blueberry sauce: Bring the frozen blueberries and blueberry jam to a simmer over medium-low heat. Smash the blueberries and cook until the juice has reduced, about 5 to 10 minutes. Once the liquid has reduced, remove from heat and let cool.
Make the homemade buttermilk: Combine the milk and lemon juice in a small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes.
Make the pancake mix: In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and poppy seeds.
Make a well in the middle and add the buttermilk, melted coconut oil, butter and vanilla extract. Mix until just combined; there should be lumps. The batter should run off the spoon. If it is too thick add a splash of milk. Don’t overmix.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add a small knob of butter, rotating the skillet so that the base is covered. Using a 1/2 cup measuring cup, measure out the batter and pour it in the skillet. When lots of bubbles form on the top use a spatula to peek underneath. If the bottom is golden brown, flip the pancake in one decisive movement. Cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Do not press down on the pancake with the spatula. To know when it is ready, simply touch the center of the pancake with your fingertips; if it is soft, then you can remove the pancake and set on a wire rack to cool. Add another small knob of butter and repeat these steps until you have cooked 9 pancakes.
Make the whipped cream: While the pancakes cool, put the heavy cream in a bowl, add the maple syrup and whip until stiff peaks form.
Make the pancake cake: Put one pancake on a flat serving plate and distribute a spoonful of the blueberry sauce followed by a few spoonfuls of the whipped cream. Arrange six strawberry pieces toward the edge then top with another pancake. Repeat all steps. On the final pancake, top with the remaining whipped cream, a strawberry and fresh blueberries.
To serve, cut slices and top with maple syrup, if desired.
Note: You can make just the pancake recipe, if you don’t want to make the entire cake, and simply serve with maple syrup. This pancake cake is also great to make ahead. Simply make the pancakes and blueberry sauce, store them in the fridge for up to one day in advance. When you are ready to serve, make the whipped cream and compile the pancake cake.
Yield: 9 pancakes, or 1 pancake cake