Tuesday, January 31, 2006


We invited some friends over for dinner this past weekend and they brought the tools and ingredients for this pyrotechnic version of mulled wine. It was literally spectacular and really delicious. The above German term refers to 3 tools you need to make the dish: fire, a metal “pincher” and a bowl. Regina, who hails from Leipzig where people get to partake of this wonderful drink while strolling through the city on winter nights, first prepared what we know of as mulled wine. She heated wine with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, orange and lemon slices and then placed the liquid in a special glass bowl with a lip. She placed a metal bar, specially made with slots to hold the lip of the bowl and holes. On top of that, she placed a special cone of sugar, doused it with warm 45% alcohol rum and lit it aflame. She continued to ladle rum on the sugar cone to create gorgeous blue/orange flames and to eventually melt the sugar. Once all the flaming rum-sugar had fallen through the holes in the metal pincher and into the brew, we got a chance to taste it. I have to say it was the best mulled wine/hot sangria I have ever tasted. Here’s the recipe:

1 bottle red table wine – do NOT break out the vintage Bordeaux on this
3 star anises
3 sticks of flaky Mexican cinnamon
9 whole cloves
½ orange in thin rounds
½ lemon in thin rounds
½ of a large German white sugar cone (if you can find it) OR l cone of Mexican brown sugar panela
½ -1 cup of 45% alcohol rum

Heat the wine being careful not to boil it for 10 minutes with the spices and fruit. Pour liquid in a large glass bowl. Place the sugar cone on an all-metal strainer that does not touch the lever of the wine or on a flat, metal cheese grater. If you can think of any other standard, metal kitchen appliances with holes in them, try them as well. Pour a couple tablespoons of the rum onto the sugar and light it. Continue to periodically pour rum on using a metal ladle. Do NOT pour directly from the bottle. Once the sugar cone has completely dissolved, enjoy the wine.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Best Tiramisù

I often find Tiramisù to be too overwhelming, too heavy too sweet, too alcoholic. My version has just the right balance of flavors to leave you satisfied, not overfull at the end of a meal. The combination of the great creaminess of mascarpone and the salty creaminess of cream cheese give this dish a pleasant roundness of flavor. I also much prefer a small amount of sharp liquor like rum or grappa for this dish rather than a large amount of sweet marsala or Kahlua. Most of the sweetness in this dessert comes from the ladyfinger cookies themselves. Here are the ingredients:

3 very fresh eggs, separated
8 ozs mascarpone cheese
8 ozs cream cheese
1 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tsp granulated sugar
¾ cup espresso, cold
2 tbsp rum or grappa
18 ladyfinger cookies
pure cocoa powder to sprinkle on top

Whip the egg whites until they reach the hard peak stage (when you pull out the beaters, the egg whites make a peak that stays straight up and doesn’t fall over). In a separate bowl, mix the mascarpone, cream cheese, egg yolks and powdered sugar to form a smooth cream. Add the whipped egg whites and fold them in until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Spread 1/3 of the mixture on the bottom of a 9x13 shallow baking dish. (At least that’s what I use. This will NOT be cooked so you can put the Tiramisù in any kind of container, even plastic) Dip the ladyfingers one by one in the coffee mixture then nestle them into the cream on their sides making sure to leave very little room between cookies. Also, be careful to dip the ladyfingers very quickly, do not let them sit in the coffee mixture or the dish will end up soggy. You want only the outside of the cookie to be saturated at first, the interior will slowly soften in the refrigerator as the dish sets. Continue until you have used up all 18 ladyfingers or have filled the bottom of the dish completely. On my 9x13 baking dish, I fit exactly 18 cookies set on their sides. Toward the end of the process, many must be broken before dipping to fit into the spaces available. Once you have filled the dish with one layer of ladyfingers, add the rest of the cream mixture and let it nestle in between the cookies. Even out the tope with a spatula, cover and refrigerate (ideally) overnight or at least 4 hours. Before serving sprinkle the cocoa through a mesh strainer onto the top of the Tiramisù (some of the brown coffee may have stained the white cream and the cocoa provides great camouflage, not only great flavor).

Friday, January 27, 2006

Let It Snow...

Buffalo, NY?; Minneapolis, MN?; Warsaw?, Moscow? Nope! This is a view from my front balcony in Milan, Italy! Last night’s news report stated that 30 centimeters (12 inches) of snow had fallen and the snow has continued to fall all day today. This hasn't happened in Milan for 20 years! The thing is that in Buffalo, Minneapolis and probably Warsaw and Moscow, they’re equipped to take the snow AWAY. Here, not so much. I trudged to an early-morning English class this morning and saw one poor lady scraping off the foot of snow from her car with a wooden spatula! Yes! She’s never had to think about having a car scraper. Shovels also seem to be scarce. The most worrying thing is that, to my knowledge, the city hasn’t cleaned any of the streets. Don’t know if they’re awaiting a shipment of snow trucks from the Dolomites or what, but this evening’s traffic jam is gonna be a doosie! (Actually, now, as of 11:16pm as I edit this, they've got the highways cleared. Still don't know where the fleet of snow plows came from.)
I think it’s time for some comfort food. Dinner tonight is this Epicurious recipe for Roast Pork With Cabbage and Caraway. I think the combination of pork, beer and caraway will be really warming and delicious. I'll let you know. I’m serving it over my standard polenta recipe. (After dinner: The roast turned out beautifully! The beer and molasses as braising liquid gave the sauce a lovely, bittersweet note.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Emerald Green Jealousy!

So Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wines and Spirits responded to my blog post about Bagna Cauda in California saying that actually the guy that bakes the bread for the annual dinner is NOT a professional baker. This is just a hobby of his. Now I am intensely, emerald greenly jealous! And his wife who grows the vast array of vegetables is not a farmer but simply as talented an amateur gardener as her husband is a baker. I don't know what to say. One day I want to grow up to be like them. Gerald also gave me a link to a San Francisco Gate article written about the whole gang and their annual bagna fest. Here's a clarification of their mega, industrial sized bagna cauda recipe.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cardoons au Gratin / Radicchio au Gratin

What to do with leftover Bagna Cauda vegetables? Gabriel grew up eating cardoons au gratin every winter in Geneva, Switzerland. When I tried it the first time I found that the dish, while very substantial, was nowhere near as heavy as potatoes au gratin, this is a green vegetable after all. The bitterness of red radicchio pairs beautifully with a rich cheese sauce, so I’m making 2 gratins today. The cardoons were boiled for 30 minutes (yes! This veggie that resembles celery really does need that much cooking. My last gratin of cardoons (pre-boiled for 20 minutes) was very unpleasantly al dente). The radicchio was raw going into the oven. I make a béchamel sauce with melted cheese (sauce mornay) for the vegetables and topped the casseroles with toasted bread crumbs. Gruyere and fontina are perfect for this dish but you can experiment with other medium hard cheeses. I’ve just tried a Greek kefalotiri which is very hard and very salty. I added no extra salt to my dishes and they turned out well.
Cardoons or red radicchio au Gratin:
2 cups of pre-boiled (30 minutes) cardoons cut into 3-4 inch pieces OR 1 large head of radicchio cut into 1 in crosswise slices (about 3 cups loosely packed)
1 tsp unsalted butter
1-2 tsps flour
2 cups milk
½ cup grated cheese
1 tbsp unsalted butter
½ cup dry bread crumbs
Pre-heat oven to 400F. Place the vegetables in a 9” x 13” shallow oven dish. Melt 1 tsp of butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and stir to create a homogeneous, bubbling roux. Cook for 1 minute then add the milk slowly. Stir vigorously to incorporate the milk and to smooth the inevitable lumps that form at the beginning. Cook for 5 minutes until thick and totally smooth. Add the grated cheese and continue stirring until the sauce returns to the same smoothness as before. Pour evenly over the vegetables. Melt 1 tbsp of butter in a frying pan and add the bread crumbs. Mix until the butter is evenly absorbed and then toast until the bread crumbs get one shade of brown darker. Sprinkle bread crumbs evenly over the casserole with a large spoon. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly in the middle.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Bagna Cauda in California

I'm so impressed! I was looking online for attractive photos of bagna cauda vegetables since my own photos didn't come out well and I found a website of a group of friends who have thrown 5 big (I mean, like 20 people!) bagna cauda parties out in California. This is really something! They are associated with Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, California and so there are loads of shots of luscious plates of food beside glasses of ruby wine. It's all very seductive. More incredibly, there seems to be a couple in the group that owns a bakery and are either very avid victory gardeners or actual farmers. The husband bakes the most amazing looking sourdough bread (it's apparently sourdough from the telltale bullseye marks of the proofing baskets where sourdough must rise at low temperatures overnight) in a real wood-burning oven! I think the couple runs "Tolmach Ovens" and so are professionals at this. I am full of envy! In the photos of all the Bagna Cauda parties, they provide many of the vegetables including the cardoons that are so hard to find in the Midwest. If you want to see what a large Bagna Cauda party could be like, have a look at the photos at Gerald Weisl's website. They have a huge list of dinner party photos and 5 of them are Bagna Cauda parties: "Bagna Calda 2002:, "Bagna Calda January 2003", "Jesper's Bagna Cauda", "Bagna Cauda at Marjorie's" and "Bagna Calda / Bagna Cauda / Bagna Caoda January 2005" Here, you'll see that they use a lot of spring and summer vegetables like asparagus and red bell peppers. Their recipe suggests one HEAD of garlic per person plus one for good luck or somesuch. Wow! And they say that tempering all this allium with milk (like I do) is for wimps. Well, more power to them; they certainly won't have anyone standing in their way (at least not too closely)! They also have individual bagna cauda sauce terrines called "ceramiche" heated with tea candles underneath. They look just like my "crema catalana" (Spanish Creme brulee) dishes fitted on top of mini pot-pourri burners. They would certainly solve the problem of 20 people trying to get at one sauce pot all at the same time. Anyway this was an impressive show of gourmet/gourmandise. Hats off to you, Gerald and all your buddies.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bagna Cauda

This traditional, rustic Northern Italian dish from Piedmont is served much like a Swiss fondue with the sauce kept hot over a sterno flame. The vegetables can be cut bite sized and dipped into the sauce with fondue forks or, if you don’t have fondue forks, cut the vegetables into long, thin spears and dip with your hands. I have omitted the traditional red or green bell pepper since I like to use only the wonderful array of seasonal winter vegetables available in Italy. I have included the traditional cardoons, a vegetable in the artichoke family that tastes a bit like artichokes but looks like very large, pale celery with a lot of spiky leaves. See the cooked version in the upper right photo. Cardoons are easy to find in Italy. I have also bought them in Chicago at Caputo’s Market and once, very surprisingly at a Pick n’ Save in Jamestown, Wisconsin! If you can’t find them, don’t worry. This dish lends itself to improvisation, so pick the vegetables you like best. Rather than napkins, use slices of an Italian country round loaf to soak up any dripped sauce from the fondue pot to the plate. Once the bread has soaked enough sauce, eat it; it’s delicious, and start again with another piece. For a full meal this dish can be preceded or followed by an assortment of cheeses and cured meats such as prosciutto and salami and if you’re lucky enough to find them, bresaola and speck. ***Note: The above photos courtesy of Gerald Weisl of Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, California

Serves 4
SAUCE: 8 cloves garlic
1/3 cup whole milk
2 tbsp unsalted butter
6 anchovy fillets with 1 tsp of their oil
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

VEGETABLE SUGGESTIONS: raw carrots, raw celery ribs, raw radicchio di treviso, raw fennel bulb, lightly steamed broccoli florets, lightly steamed cauliflower florets, boiled cardoons, boiled potatoes, boiled brussels sprouts, boiled artichokes.

Plenty of warm, crusty, country bread

Place the peeled garlic cloves and the milk in a small food processor and process until you achieve a fine paste. Place this mixture into a small saucepan with the butter, the anchovies and the oil and cook over low heat for minutes until the anchovies have disintegrated. Do not expect this to turn out smooth and creamy like a mayonnaise. You will have a separated sauce consisting in oil on top and sediment on the bottom. Don't worry, that's the way it's supposed to be. Place the sauce in the fondue pot or a flameproof pot held over a sterno flame. Serve with vegetables and bread.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

New Continental Market

For about 15 years now, Italy along with Spain, Ireland and Greece has been experiencing a wave of immigration from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. These European countries that were poor in the 19th and early 20th centuries were bleeding people during that time and filled countries like Canada, the US, Australia and Argentina. Now that Italy is relatively rich and part of the European Union the immigration tide has turned. Some Italians are in shock, some are welcoming but it makes me feel more at home. Number 1, I’m not the only foreigner on the block so I’m not alone and number 2, the food possibilities have skyrocketed since new groups of people have come here.

New Continental Market, just north of piazzale Loreto on viale Monza is my favorite of the many new foreign food shops in Milan. It sells groceries from every continent except Europe (well, ok, they don’t sell any Australian or Antarctic stuff either) and at a fair, non-exoticized price. I buy my fresh cardamom pods and tamarind paste for curries, my wasabe and nori for sushi and my dulce de leche for topping gelato all at New Continental, oh, and they even have peanut butter! I still pass by the African ungubu and red palm oil with wonder, but give me time! I’ll get there too.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Polish Stuffed Cabbage Meets Luganega!

The fantastic luganega sausage taste test inspired me to invent a great (I hope) winter dish of Polish-Italian extraction. Gołumki di Luganega. The great Polish stuffed cabbage meets Milan’s Luganega sausage! Northern Italy, of course uses a great deal of cabbage in winter dishes like Minestrone and Cassoeula. All of the recipes I looked through in cookbooks and online (FoodTV and Epicurious) call for cabbage to be stuffed with ground beef but Luganega will certainly be tastier than that. We need something like this to warm us up since it's been a much colder winter than normal. Here’s the recipe.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 lb luganega sausage
1 cup cooked rice (I happen to have some left-over basmati)
2 egg whites (use 1 egg unless, like me, you happen to have 2 egg whites waiting in the fridge for something to be done with them)
1 tsp crushed, dried rosemary
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
8 large savoy cabbage leaves
½ of a 14 oz can of chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp butter

First set a large pot of water to boil. In a frying pan, sauté the minced onion in the butter or oil until soft and lightly browned. Remove to a medium sized bowl. Add the sausage to the pan and brown while breaking it up as much as possible. Remove to the bowl. Add all the other ingredients to the bowl and mix. Taste for salt and pepper. By now, the water should be boiling. Add the cabbage leaves to blanch, that is boil BRIEFLY. The leaves should be tender and pliable but not so soft they fall apart. Remove cabbage from pot, pat dry and lay out on a large cutting board or work surface. Preheat oven to 350F. With a knife, take out the thick rib from each leaf, then add 1/8 of the filling mixture to each and roll like a burrito. Pour the crushed tomatoes in the bottom of a baking dish. Place rolls tightly together in the dish seam side down. Dot with butter. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 45 minutes.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Out on the Town in Milan

Last night, our houseguest, Marcy went out on the town with a young, hip Brazilian woman she'd met on the plane over here. We, of course, stayed home. While Marcy was sipping prosecco and munching on balsamic marinated fresh mozzarella and arugula-bresaola wraps, we were home working. As Marcy conversed in Portug-Eng-Italian with Alessandra, Cristiana, Paolo and Rino, I was e-mailing English grammar exercises to my Monday evening student. As Marcy danced 'til long after our bedtime, Gabriel was proofreading a neuroscience article for publication. Zzzzz! On one hand I think it's a little sad that we don't take advantage of the evidently great fashion jet set nightlife in Milan but on the other hand I just couldn't be bothered.

Somewhere very near here there are 16 year-old models sipping caipirinhas and dancing ‘til dawn. But, we've never seen this actually happen. Every once in a while I'll catch sight of a beautiful, tall, thin, young woman on the metro who has no make-up on, hair in a ponytail wearing jeans and gym shoes so doesn’t exactly look like a model and I’m left to wonder. One day as I was waiting for a friend in a downtown cafe, I overheard a conversation among 4 middle-aged heavy-set American ladies who I was sure were on vacation in Italy. They were talking about their hotel experiences and finding their way here when the daughter of one of them came out of the building next door. She was younger than the average beautiful girl on the metro. Then another daughter came out. I got a good look at this one. She was almost 6 feet tall and was wearing a miniskirt and very high heels. She looked about 17 until she reached her mom where the most incredible transformation happened right in front of my eyes! Her mom handed her a pair of tennis shoes and she quickly stepped into and out of the heels. Suddenly (maybe the change was also caused by the proximity to the parental unit) she looked about 12. All of the high heeled sophistication was gone and she seemed like a wholesome kid on vacation with her mom.

Friday, January 13, 2006

An Italian Sausage Taste Test

So far, I have not been able to find "Italian Sausage" in Italy. I'm talking about that delicious backyard barbecue staple of ground pork with fennel seed that comes in "mild" (ingredients just described) or "hot" with red pepper flakes. This product is available in every American city I've lived in. Okay, okay that's limited to Chicago, DeKalb, Iowa City and Minneapolis so just the upper Midwest but still, not to find this in Italy came as a shock. I am tempted to believe that this isn't just another case of something Italian-American passed off as something Italian but that I'm just living in the wrong part of Italy. In fact there's really no such thing as "Italian Cuisine" it's a lot more plural than that. Every region has a wide repertoire of unique dishes, the Milanese "Casseula" is one; the Pumpkin Tortellini of Mantua is another. Different regions even call cuts of meat by different names. I think I need to head to Naples or Palermo and try out the sausage there.

But today, we have "luganega" a local Milanese sausage that has a suspiciously similar name to the Greek "loukaniko". -Pause for dinner- Wow! Luganega is much more delicious than any other sausage available in Milan. It has a wonderful straightforward meaty taste. Other sausages available here are a lot less flavorful. Luganega has no fennel, though so I'm still on the quest for "Italian Sausage".

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chewing Mastiha

I promise this is the last thing I’ll say about Greece for at least a few months, okay? I’ve been web surfing between sets of reasearch for my upcoming English Composition and Grant Writing classes at the Bicocca (Univ. of Milan) and I pulled out a giant tub of Greek “Mastiha” to accompany my travels. My mouth is full of sticky, sugar coma-inducing wonderfulness. Mastiha in the form I have it, is thick, chewy, (harder than) gooey and almost salt-water toffie-like. Probably the origin of the word masticate. The consistency is not the point though. It’s the taste. This particular product is 55% sugar (says on the label) and (probably) 44% glucose syrup with (I imagine) 1% Mastic oil. It’s the mastic oil that gets me. It’s a delicious, elusive flavor – almost minty, almost clovelike. I love it! So I Google the brand Mastihashop and get the story. They sell natural mastiha resin droplets along with a host of hip looking Mastiha products. I’m trying to imagine the concentrated minty, clovelike flavor of the resin unencumbered by the overwhelming, stupor-inducing sugar content of the stuff I’ve got. Evidently the droplets used to be popular among the higher-ups of the empires that controlled what is now Greece. Romans, Genoans, Byzantines and Ottomans all favored the Island (and islanders) of Chios where Mastiha comes from and chewed the resin to promote good breath and white teeth. It seems that as with many agricultural products from Greece, the Mastiha industry has been suffering as of late. So Mastihashop is trying to make a go of promoting this stuff as a premium product. I find that Greece has loads of magnificent and quite undiscovered gourmet items that, if they were French or Italian would sell for much more. I wish all the best to Mastihashop. Next time I’m in Greece, I’ll be sure to get some of that resin.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Italy on $50 A Day and No Pizza

We have a houseguest over from Minnesota these days. It’s funny since Gabriel (originally from Geneva, Switzerland) never got ANY visitors from home (or anywhere else for that matter) while he was living in Minnesota but now that we’re in Milan, we’ve literally had dozens. Minneapolis is far more beautiful than Milan, but Milan is near so many great things: Lake Como is basically a suburb, the Shakespeare cities, Verona and Mantua, are about 2 hours away from here. Venice is 3-1/2. Minneapolis is pretty much in the middle of a lot of corn.

Our houseguest, Marcy loves Italy for its design industry and photo-worthy landscapes, but the wonderful food, pasta, pizza, anyway, the “primi piatti” are out of reach since she’s allergic to wheat. It’s a shame to be in Italy with this restriction since meat here isn’t all that stellar. This is a country that has perfected veal, which to me is just beef made to taste like chicken. What’s the point? A product they call “Roast beef” is sold in supermarkets in paper-thin slices made to be fried into shoe-leathery bits. Well, there’s always the fish.

I shouldn’t be so negative. The food is great here even if you can’t eat the pizza. So, we planned to have a dinner party and introduce Marcy to some of our Italian friends. The goal was to create a whole meal with no flour or any other wheat product and also no garlic. Polenta was out too since evidently it also can contain some wheat flour. Planning dinner was kind of neat actually. I felt like I was on “The Splendid Table” with Lynne Rossetto Kasper thinking up a dish with nothing but the ingredients in somebody’s fridge. My first thought was a dinner of Indian curries served with a basmati rice pilaf but then Marcy reminded me about the garlic and I decided to go Persian. I’ve heard that Persians never use garlic in their cuisine but that has also been contradicted. Anybody out there know? Anyway, this dish turned out wonderfully! It’s called “Fesenjan”. The recipe, being tailored for American kitchens (and supermarkets) calls for chicken rather than the traditional pheasant. My butchers had pheasant, so I went orthodox on this one. I got my pomegranate syrup from a local Middle Eastern pastry shop called Al Buraq. I'd bet the cranberry juice concentrate suggested in the recipe would be really tasty as well.

Last Night's Dinner Menu:
  • Rice Soup Avgolemono (with an egg-lemon juice thickener)

  • Gabriel’s Spezofai (Greek Loukaniko sausage sauteed with onions, green peppers and tomato)

  • Fesenjan with simple basmati rice pilaf


2 cups uncooked basmati rice
1/2 tsp whole cumin seed
1/3 cup raisins
1 tbsp butter

Rinse the rice in water 4-5 times taking care not to break the grains. Drain completely. Place the butter, cumin and raisins in a medium to large lidded pot over medium heat. Sautee the mixture until the raisins have puffed and the cumin is fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the drained rice plus 2-1/2 cups of water. Cover immediately and allow to come to the boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 15 minutes until the rice has absorbed all the water and there is a slight frying sound. Let covered pot off the heat for 5-10 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork before serving.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Italians Love Greek Food

Most Italians I know are rather suspicious of French food. Their basic image of French cuisine is that it’s way overrated because it's heavy. "Heavy" is about the worst thing an Italian can say about food which is kind of funny coming from the land that produced lasagna. One Italian friend told me that adding cream to a sauce was like cheating; if you don’t know how to make something taste good, just add cream. This respect for light food is sometimes combined with a sense of Italian culinary nationalism. For Italy, the specter of France, the wealthier, more progressive and sometimes condescending neighbor to the north causes some defensiveness. But the one and only area where I see Italian nationalism is in the cuisine. Italians do not boast about their president, their economy or their language but most believe their food is beyond compare. Interest in foreign cuisine is spotty and recent. (This is for most people, eh. Our circle of friends here are very global in their outlook especially with food, but as in the States where I didn't know anybody who voted for Bush, the university community of professors and grad students can often seem like a small bubble separate from the community at large.) Actually some Italians only like Italian food and suffer when they travel abroad especially when they go to France. One very common exception is Italians’ love of Greek cuisine. For a few decades, Greece has been a popular vacation spot for Italians and most say they love Greek food. There is very little in the Greek repertoire that’s thick and cream based. Vegetables are often boiled and dressed simply with olive oil and lemon or lightly sautéed in olive oil. Meat and fish usually come grilled and served with a slice of lemon on the side. Great ingredients and simplicity of preparation are the hallmarks of Greek cuisine. Above you'll see my father-in-law's dish of cuttlefish with greens in an avgolemono (egg-lemon) sauce make a comment if you want the recipe and I'll get it for you.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dry-Cured Pelion Olives

We're back from Greece and settling into daily life in Milan again. It's always sad to leave vacation but we brought some fresh Pelion olives back to remind us of our outdoorsey, do-it-yourself life in Greece. Pelion olives are quite different from the very popular Greek Kalamata olive. They are bigger and rounder but not as black and without that pointy tip characteristic of the Kalamata. I have eaten them in a variety of styles from salty to tart to herby. In early December, my in-laws had the olives on the property collected. They got a few gallons of olive oil and a barrel of fresh olives from the harvest. Fresh olives, of course can't just be eaten off the tree. Their bitter juice must first be leached out and then they can be flavored. We took a bag of "good" olives - the prime ones that were shaken from the tree at the peak of ripeness and I collected some lesser olives that remained on the tree. The fresh "good" olives are big, juicy and an indeterminate color between tan and black. Exposure to sunlight darkens them as they age. The ones left on the tree are drier and wrinkled and jet black with a light blue-purple bloom on the skin. So why did I collect the left-over olives? Mina, the neighbor down the road brought us some that she had collected late and simply cured in salt. They were rich and a bit salty without the typical tang from being stored in vinegar. I was impressed by tasting such a delicious thing that normally goes to waste. I looked through a book of recipes for preserving fresh olives, "Les Olives du Table" by Fiorella Cottier-Angeli and found some great advice for dry-curing olives left on the tree. You can follow this process with "good" fresh olives that are often available fresh and un-cured in Italian groceries in the fall and winter. They are certainly available at Caputo's in Chicago. BTW: These olives are called "Olive al Forno" (Oven-Baked Olives) in Italy since one of the steps is putting the olives in the oven to dry.

2 pounds of fresh black olives
1 cup of the cheapest fine salt (here that's un-iodized sea salt believe it or not)
olive oil to cover
one of the following herb/spice combinations:
  • 3 bay leaves and 1 sprig of fennel tops
  • 3 fresh thyme sprigs and 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp freshly ground cumin and 1 tsp ground sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp dried red chili flakes and several slices of preserved lemon.

Thoroughly wash the olives and let them dry in a collander for 24 hours. Mix them with the salt, place a plate over them and weigh the plate down. (My mother-in-law did this in the country house and used a huge log to weigh the plate down, I'm using my marble mortar and pestle. Just get something stable and heavy. Leave the olives to render their bitter juices for about 1 month. Ms. Cottier-Angeli mentions that the Maroccans leave them for 2 weeks, the Algerians, for 1 month and the Italians for 2 months. In any case, you must leave them until they stop rendering their juice.

Once that has happened, rince them with clear water and dry them. I'm going to follow the Calabrian suggestion of baking bread, turning off the oven and immediately placing the olives in the oven in one layer on cookie sheets and leaving them in the oven until it has cooled completely. They should be wrinkly and soft. Pack them tightly in glass jars and cover with olive oil. Add one of the seasoning combinations. I don't know how long it takes for the herbs and spices to make an impact on the flavor of the olives but they can be kept for a long time.

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