After the Tornado | Two recipes and a new sense of gratitude | Alternative Pesto & Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes + Bulgur With Herbs

fresh basil leafs and yellow cherry tomatoes on rusty surface with seeds on jars

What has recently happened here on the Riviera del Brenta, a large and wonderful area only a few kilometers from Venice, has deeply shaken me.
An exceptional and devastating tornado has passed very near to my house and I feel I need to spend a few words about this event that has touched me so closely.
In Italy events with such a devastating impact are very rare. The Italian collective imagination usually links these types of phenomenon to other parts of the world, like America for example, where the cliche of the huge Texan ranch with a shelter underground, has touched almost everyone with films such as Twister (1996).
In Venice, there has been only one other occurrence, more than 40 years ago, when a twister in the middle of the lagoon lifted a vaporetto (a waterbus) killing many people.
But this time the force of Nature came crashing down violently right in the area where I live, destroying many small towns in the Veneto countryside. But to be precise, by saying “the area where I live”, I mean it happened less than 300 meters from my house. I saw the tornado from my kitchen window. It touched lightly the trees on the edge of my garden.And with it came a loud bang and a very strong light and then a mixture of hailstones and an incredible fury. It lasted less than ten minutes and then it was over.
A feeble sunlight reappeared that contrasted with a very dark sky that felt almost heavy over our heads. I ran out of the house and rode my bike around because I needed to understand what had happened. I felt a blow to my heart in seeing the first houses crushed to the ground less than two minutes away from my home. The faces of the people whom I recognized, standing dumbfounded outside their house now reduced to rubbles. Some of the roofs had completely disappeared; cars were upside down; pylons and electric poles bent down by the fury.
The Brenta River like a wonderful Naviglio runs through this area, between Venice and Padova. It’s dotted with ancient Venetian Villas of rare beauty dated from XV century, but today it appears torn apart. All around, it looks like a wartime scene. Many of these Villas have gone forever. Not only have they been badly damaged, but in some cases they have entirely disappeared, blown away by the wind like leaves in autumn.
In a few minutes this landscape has been completely transformed. The life of many people, those who have survived, totally changed.
I feel more than lucky. I almost feel like a miraculous survivor, shocked at the same time because something wanted to save me from this tragedy. It could have been me instead of those people. My house could have been destroyed, my garden left with no leaves.
The wind blew over my head shaking the roof. In those ten minutes I kept staring at the bamboo canes in my garden, bending but not breaking, as if they were some tall, winding figures. “Garden, hold on! It will go away”. I kept thinking. And in the end, it went away.

person holding a plate with fresh basil leafs and yellow cherry tomatoes

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I can’t say it’s common to see a sense of gratitude for having survived being reflected in people’s face. Half hour later, many people with their faces still troubled by what had happened, were out in the street trying to figure out what to do.
I’ve considered these intense moments when, even in tragedy, it’s still possible to see the positive sides of people such as solidarity and unity. We are all so fragile.
Our presence is a temporary one, and what we have doesn’t last forever. Nature will always be stronger….but very often we forget all this.
There are people here who have lost everything while I’m so lucky to still have all my cherry tomato plants with their fruits on!
Actually, the rain and the lower temperature have helped the plants to be more luxuriant. Nature takes away and Nature gives back.
Pictures of the tornado aftermath are filling newspapers pages but I don’t want to post photos related to these dramatic events. Quite the opposite in fact, if possible I’d like to celebrate what fate has left intact.
This morning I’ve picked lots of vegetables from my vegetable garden, as if it was a sort of offering. I’ve never had such lush basil leaves. The soil here is quite dry and clayey and this Mediterranean plant usually has difficulty growing very well.
I can’t quite figure out why my next-door neighbor doesn’t have a house anymore and I’m here picking perfect yellow tomatoes and basil leaves. It’s extremely unfair.
While I’m picking a great number of tomatoes, I feel more and more in tune with this land, which is something new for me. I lived in other cities, I have traveled enough to see many wonderful places and often leaving this place in the background of my life. Then, I came back to live here, like an outsider. I’ve got my studio, my work, my friends who are all around the world and happy put me up when I visit them. There is the garden, my parents’ studios, many things to do. Inside this daily routine, we often forget about all the rest, what is outside the front door because we take for granted it will always be there, waiting for us. But when we realize it is not like this because things can drastically change in a blink, then our own existence in that particular place becomes much more real. I’m here and this land is my home. We are all part of the same Universe. I have helped these plants to grow, and I’ve been waiting patiently for months before picking their fruits.
Taking care of our own land and being able to eat what has grown in it is simply extraordinary. One needs to experience it in order to be able to fully understand it; exactly like when we are in front of the forces of Nature above us and we feel helpless.
With all the basil that I have, I’ve decided to prepare an alternative pesto.

homemade preparation of pesto with pine nuts and fresh basil on a rusty table

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It’s a very nutrient version of the traditional one, with lots of seeds and dried fruit but without garlic, which is almost an essential ingredient in the traditional recipe. However, for a stronger flavor it can be added. The pesto can be put in jars making sure you cover the top with olive oil and close the lid firmly. It can be kept in the fridge even for a week. My grandmother has come up with a very clever technique to keep the pesto longer in small portions to use, such as freezing the pesto in the ice cubes mold.
Obviously, the pesto freshly made and use immediately is another story altogether, but just in case you have a large quantity of basil, this method can be useful. The secret to making this version of the pesto very smooth is to toast the seeds very well and then grind them finely. I have used almonds, together with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts. It’s possible to do this with a pestle and mortar. It takes longer but the natural oil in the seeds will make the flour a lot smoother.
Using a food processor is certainly quicker but the result will be different: the seeds flour will be drier. This is not a problem but in case it’s too dry, use a little olive oil. Ideally, you should use the pestle and mortar even for the basil leaves but I understand that maybe it’s better to avoid spending half the day using and pestle and mortar. Therefore, thanks for the existence of the food processor!
However, once back in my little house, feeling like a survivor and after having made a scandalous amount of pesto, I’ve thought of giving you a very easy-to-make recipe, also using cherry tomatoes that are very abundant in vegetable gardens and at the markets almost everywhere. I’ve used the yellow cherry tomatoes because they are very sweet and delicious and also slightly bigger than the red ones and so it’s easier to stuff them. But even the red cherry tomatoes are very good to use. I’ve stuffed them with the freshly made pesto and a little fresh ricotta cheese and then cooked them in a fan-assisted oven, which is essential for drying them and for roasting the top well.

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overhead shot of baked stuffed with pesto yellow tomatoes and bulgur on tray with ingredients on table

They are also very good eaten cold. I’ve served them with the bulgur flavored with fresh herbs such as mint, Greek basil, dill, and some sesame seeds. Below, I’ll explain how to do it.
The first few days after the tornado have passed and it’s easier to forget about it if I turn my eyes towards the landscape that hasn’t been affected by it. It is easy for those like me who haven’t been directly affected to carry on with their own daily lives, making recipe after recipe, and taking photo after photo.
But a new sense of gratitude for everything that I’ve got, for this wonderful life, for the beautiful things that are around me, give me the strength to look towards things I’ve never wanted to see.
Today the sun is shining.

bulgur with herbs and baked stuffed with pesto tomatoes on table with ingredients

Alternative Pesto & Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes And Bulgur Flavoured With Herbs
Recipe type: vegetarian, seasonal herbs, gatherings
(To make two jars as those in the picture, about ¾ cups of Pesto).
*Pecorino can be omitted for the vegans, in which case you should use a little less oil.
  • 100g / 1 cup of basil leaves
  • 100 to 150 ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • 2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tbsp sliced almonds
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts
  • 70g of freshly grated Pecorino DOP
  • a good pinch of salt
Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes:
(Serves 2)
  • 20 yellow cherry tomatoes
  • 100g Pesto / a small jar
  • 70g Ricotta cheese
  • a pinch of salt
  • ½ tbsp pine nuts to garnish
  • Basil leaves
Bulgur with herbs
(Serves 2)
  • 150g organic bulgur wheat
  • 2 small bunches of fresh mint
  • 1 small bunch of fresh dill
  • 1 tbsp sliced almonds
  • 2 tbsp black sesame seeds
  • 2 tsp of soja sauce
  • 1 tsp of gomasio
  1. Wash the basil leaves and pat dry them very well.
  2. Leave the pine nuts aside and briefly toast together the rest of the seeds in a non-stick pan.
  3. Put the seeds in a food processor and grind them to flour. Leave aside.
  4. Blend the basil leaves, the grated goat cheese, pine nuts and salt and oil in the food processor. Blend quickly so to avoid the basil leaves to tarnish.
  5. Add the seeds flour and blend well until the sauce thickens.
  6. Add the remaining oil and blend again quickly.
  7. Fill the jars (they must be perfectly clean and dry) with the pesto and cover the top with some more oil. Keep in the fridge.
Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes:
  1. Wash and dry the cherry tomatoes. Cut in half and remove the seeds inside.
  2. In a bowl stir well together with the ricotta and the pesto. Add a pinch of salt.
  3. Stuff the cherry tomatoes with the Ricotta and Pesto, leveling the top with a spoon. Put them in a non-stick oven-dish and garnish with some pine nuts and fresh basil leaves.
  4. Put in the fan-assisted oven for 20 minutes at 200°C / 400°F
Bulgur with Herbs:
  1. Rinse the bulgur wheat under cold running water. Bring to the boil 500 ml of water and cook the bulgur for about 12-15 minutes. Drain and leave it to cool.
  2. Wash and dry the herbs leaves (discard of the stalks) and roughly chop them. Toast the almonds.
  3. Season the cool bulgur with the soja sauce, add the herbs and the toasted almonds. Sprinkle over the gomasio and the sesame seeds.

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1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Reply Miranda 21/07/2015 at 22:26

    Hi Zaira,
    gorgeous job, I love your work!

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