Ciao'd while watching the robins


High, low. Up, down. Black, white. And for the purpose of this post, left coast (rain), east coast (snow). 

We seem to be living in a world of opposites lately. Points of view about politics, immigration, the stock market, and global warming are, more often than not, polarizing (pun intended). But when it comes to the weather, Mother Nature rules. 

While yet another snowstorm (say it ain't snow) is poised to blanket the east, in my neck of the woods we are celebrating spring. Literally. Those April showers that bring May flowers are about to deluge us, thanks to the pineapple express, a wash of warm rain that originates in the tropics. 

This weekend will be a beat down weatherwise but I proffer a sunny outlook in the kitchen. This salad showcases spinach, a green that deliciously straddles winter and spring. It's a "meaty" green with a toothsome texture and forward flavor. That's why it pairs so well with smoky, salty pancetta. Pine nuts offer a creamy crunch. 

The salad is a lovely side dish for 'most anything, cold weather or warm weather.  I savor it on its own, too, with crunchy, country bread - and a double dose of pancetta.

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This salad takes the Italian route with the addition of pancetta, pine nuts, and balsamic vinegar.

Serves 6

3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 pound pancetta, cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 cups spinach leaves

Preheat to the oven to 350 degrees. 

Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and toast until lightly browned,
3 to 5 minutes. Watch them carefully, as they will burn in an instant!

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook the pancetta until crisp; drain on paper towels. 

In a large salad bowl, whisk together the vinegars and salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil in a steady stream. Taste for seasoning. Add the spinach and toss to coat with the dressing. 

Divide among 6 plates, sprinkle with the pancetta and pine nuts and serve immediately.

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Ciao'd with a vase of yellow tulips keeping me company.

This recipe is the epitome of cucina povera or peasant cooking. It's home-based food that's not influenced by chefs or trends. Cucina povera is grounded in basic ingredients, historically gathered and grown on one's farm. Made with the freshest ingredients, whether truly fresh or preserved, the food manifests integrity and sings with flavor. In my recipe, I call for dried beans which would be used in traditional kitchens. If you're pressed for time, substitute 3 cups canned beans. 

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup dried cannellini beans*
Several sprigs each parsley, thyme, oregano
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh spinach, stemmed (about 8 cups), rinsed
1 pound boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 pound eggplant, trimmed, cut into ½-inch wedges
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup beef broth
Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse and drain the beans, picking them over to remove any debris. Transfer the beans to a medium saucepan, add cold water to cover the beans by 1 inch or so, cover the pot, bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Let rest 1 hour. Set the pan over medium heat. Add the herb sprigs, bay leaf, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to a boil then uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer until the beans are tender, 1-1 ½ hours total. Test for doneness after 1 hour, adding more water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. Drain the beans and remove the herbs.

In a large deep skillet over medium heat, combine the spinach along with any water clinging to its leaves and a generous dash of salt. Cook until the spinach just begins to wilt, about 3 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a paper towel-lined plate. When the spinach is cool, wrap it in the paper towel and squeeze to remove as much water as you can. Coarsely chop.

Wipe the skillet dry and heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the lamb and garlic and cook, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent the garlic from burning, until the lamb is browned but still pink inside, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the lamb to a plate and loosely cover to keep warm.

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is browned and tender, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is browned and tender, 5 to 7 minutes.

Return the lamb and accumulated juices to the pan. Stir in the beans, spinach, oregano, and beef broth, and cook until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.

*For a quicker version of this recipe, substitute 3 cups canned cannellini beans and skip the dried beans cooking method and ingredients therein.